The real opposition

It is the first time in my life that the UK Labour Party has been a genuine opposition party and prepared to govern to bring about reforms to the economy and to society.

Against the backdrop of troubles across the world, it is cause for hope.

Since the 1960s, we have been living under increasing financial deregulation. Banks, financial institutions and large corporations have been given greater freedoms in how they behave and in the influence they have over governments. At the same time, ordinary people’s democratic rights have been eroded. The elite have been freed to accumulate extreme levels of wealth. And in so doing, they have expanded their power base and influence through government, through political parties, through institutions and through society. They can continually remind us that there is no other way: that a market economy is good. Their economists tell us that resources are distributed fairly through society only through the freemarket. They try and make us believe that the economy works like a business or a household; where, if the country spends too much, we go into debt. This debt, if not dealt with through austerity, will expand and be passed on to subsequent generations. So they say.

These are lies simply to justify the excesses of those with immense wealth and power.

Very few of the so-called 1 per cent are inherently bad or greedy people. It is but a natural response to defend your interests, your capital and wealth. We do it all the time. Except, when an individual or a group of individuals, say Rupert Murdoch or private financial institutions, set in motion actions to defend and protect their interests, with billions of pounds of resources, well-developed organisational infrastructure and media reach, it has a profound and powerful effect. Their message continually gets into our homes, our workplaces, it pervades and lingers in our thinking. Many of us know what is going on, but the pervasiveness of their message sows doubt and uncertainty, it undermines our power to resist.

And we concede, we submit to what Margaret Thatcher said, “there is no alternative. We submit to neoliberalism as an inevitability. Maybe we can gain a few concessions, but we accept the overall scheme of things.

Much as New Labour did under Blair and Brown.

But then we go to war in Iraq to perpetuate the industrial-military complex, to create an enemy and to further promote doubt and fear. Then the banks are exposed to have been too greedy, they have given out too much credit and it has limited value. Our subservient politicians submit to their city masters and create public money to save these institutions. At the same time they allow industry to fail and jobs to go, because that is, as they say, the nature of the freemarket.

Politicians then deepen austerity, not because it will improve the economy, but because it allows more state services to be transferred to big business. Public services that are not profitable are scrapped.

The Labour Party, having been in the grip of the interests of finance and big business since the 1970s, abandoned the ordinary people of the UK in order to play the politics that was dictated by banks, corporations and the obscenely wealthy. New Labour threw a few crumbs to the people in return for votes, but did not have the courage to do what was necessary. Blair betrayed the people of Britain for his own personal wealth and aggrandizement. Between 1997 and 2010, the Labour Party lost just shy of five million votes.

It is no surprise then, when a large proportion of the Labour Party membership vote a left-wing MP into the leadership position. Jeremy Corbyn has spent his entire political career opposing neoliberalism. He is elected to lead a real opposition. It leads to a shite storm of such fury that it makes you lose sleep at night and it rattles your nerves. You feel the full force of Murdoch, J P Morgan, Branson etc., the rest of the establishment’s contempt and their intent to destroy.

Oddly, commentators talk about there being no opposition. What they mean is they want a Labour leader who will play the old game. One who knows the rules. One who will play politics within the parameters set by the elite. They want a spectacle, a good gladiator who will fight in the empire’s Colosseum. Put on a good show. But, they  must not say what needs to be said. They must not challenge the democratic deficit, obscene inequality and the unfairness that has grown out of all proportion since our politicians handed society to the bankers.

But the commentators are stupid. Their uncritical subservience to economic liberalism has been the incubator for the far right. And if they persist they will have been complicit in re-creating totalitarianism. We are already seeing it happen.

This is why I give my full support to Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell and their small group of loyal MPs. It is this group that are prepared to take it on. It’s hackneyed, but they are prepared to speak truth to power. They have limitations. They have no infrastructure save a party machinery that is hostile to them. They are in a weak position. But they have demonstrated courage, conviction and determination in weathering the storm that has come from both within the party and from the establishment. Overall, they have remained steadfast in their opposition to the status quo.

If society is to have any hope in these difficult times, then we must support our real opposition. We must oppose the fake and false politics of the politicians and commentators who have become the lackeys of finance and big business.



A National Education Service is exactly what we need

Jeremy Corbyn has been floating the idea of a National Education Service since his Labour leadership campaign last year. The idea is breathtakingly simple and, in fact, blindingly obvious. The formation of a fully-funded, cradle-to-grave education service is the antithesis of the outsourced fragmented and anti-democratic reforms that have been creeping in since the 1970s. These are a few of my initial thoughts on the idea.

The National Education Service would provide a coordinated high-quality education service that supports learning from early years, through schools, sixth form, further education, undergraduate, postgraduate to adult and lifelong learning.

Schools would no longer be in a position where they are artificially competing with each other, but they would coordinate their strategies and maximise the use of their resources to better serve local communities and regions. It would mean a change from the current fetishisation of leadership to promote mutual and cooperatively run services, where teachers, parents, pupils and communities are recognised as stakeholders and have a greater say in how schools function.

At present there is a recruitment and retention crisis in teaching, a National Education Service would address this. Teachers would have more professional esteem and have greater control over their work, pay and conditions. The intensity of their work would be reduced by shifting the emphasis from centralised accountability to local democratic accountability.

While some examinations would continue to be important, this would not be at the expense of developing broader skills and more holistic school contributions such as the education of the community and emphasizing inclusivity, collaboration and partnership. Certainly it would move away from excessive compulsory testing for the purpose of accountability. It would mean a departure from a narrowly defined curriculum to one which reflects the needs of the community in which the school is located. The overall aim would be to equip students with the skills and capacities to contribute to society and help them develop as individuals. An overarching aim would be to put education at the heart of making society a more effective, fairer and more inclusive functioning democracy.

In further education, it would mean an end to degenerate privatisation, but provide a service that supports post-16 education, both academic and vocational – without necessarily drawing strong distinctions between the two. It would offer adult learning, whether it be developing skills, allowing people to develop their interests or in helping them prepare for advanced studies. University education would be freely available to all and include opportunity to blend academic and vocational studies. The Open University would be restored to a position where it can offer low-cost and flexible approaches to university-level education.

This is ambitious and the main objection is, simply, that we cannot afford it. My argument is that we cannot afford not to do this. Education is not having the impact on society that it should be, it can do more to improve the quality of outcomes for communities; developing skills and knowledge and helping people make a difference in their lives and to the people around them. While all society’s problems cannot be solved by schools, education can be at the heart of improvement, by equipping the next generation to be more active and effective participants in democracy.

In terms of cost, it has been estimated that the bank bail-out, with all things considered was as much as £1.2 trillion1. Much of this investment went toward the preservation of these institutions and the preservation of the wealth of their key stakeholders. The National Education Service would be fraction of this investment. Of the order of tens of billions each year. Investment that would go directly into the economy but at the same time would result in considerable growth. If it were done carefully this kind of investment would have little impact on the deficit but would have considerable economic and social benefits2.

1.  Episode 5, The End of History. Economist James Meadway citing IMF estimates

2.  I discuss the economics of school spending in the following blog post:

I published this post on the Cambridge Area Momentum site previously

Political activism and the educator

The Labour Party leadership campaign this summer motivated me to become more politically active. Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign represented a chance for greater democracy and fairness. I felt that for the first time in my life there was a chance that things could change. Importantly, I believed I had the power to contribute to change. Within a short time I became a political activist. I joined the Labour Party, and after Corbyn was elected got involved with the Cambridge Area Momentum group. A national group which was established to carry forward the grassroots enthusiasm generated during Corbyn’s leadership campaign. Overall I felt a greater sense of political motive.

I decided, like my colleague and friend at the University of Nottingham, Peter Gates, to integrate my activism with my personal and professional life. I have never been comfortable with compartmentalising my life. I like it simple. But it comes with its challenges. The following are my reflections on being an educator, a researcher and on being politically active.

The thing is about people on benefits: talking with a taxi driver

I was leading some professional development at a Cambridgeshire school in December 2015. I had to get a taxi. The driver asked me what I did. I told him. We got onto the subject of welfare and benefits. He said he thought too many people had too little incentive to work. I disagreed. I explained that I thought people on benefits had been unfairly represented on television and in some newspapers. I also explained that I believed the way to help people who find themselves trapped on benefits is through education and through supporting communities. Things do not change for these people through punitive measures, they change by having opportunities, having the skills, knowledge and confidence to take those opportunities.

We talked about whether the nation could afford this. He said we had overspent and the country was in debt. I explained that this had been misrepresented. Debt as a percentage of GDP was at a reasonable level, cutting public investment in poorer communities would add to the national debt because communities in decline cost more in the long term in terms of health, crime and welfare.

Our conversation was robust but good natured. But in the end he had some advice for me. He told me that someone like me in education should not be political. That I had a responsibility not to impose my political views.

Advice from a political philosopher

A mathematics educator colleague and friend from Loughborough University had, it seemed, been thinking about being a researcher and being politically active. He Tweeted the following.

It made me think.

Bas van der Vossen, a political philosopher, carefully and thoroughly examines whether political philosophers should also be politically active. Marx said it was a necessity. That the point of philosophy is to change the world. But van der Vossen argues that in order to conduct effective philosophy, it is important not be drawn into activism; to maintain impartiality and objectivity. Matthew agrees and that by analogy, educational researchers must also stay out of political debate.

I disagree.

Imposing my political views and biasing my research: a defence

So as a teacher – the argument goes – it is important not to influence the views and politics of those for whom you have responsibility for teaching. A teacher holds a position of trust and therefore must not use that power to coerce and unduly influence.

As a researcher, engaging in campaigns and activism makes it difficult to detach those aims from research. The researcher will inadvertently push an agenda through their research.

Yet, I feel strongly about the level of  inequality in our society. It is a political choice not to provide adequate services to support communities, particularly those that are disadvantaged. I do not believe the freemarket is the answer. But I am not opposed to business either.

The political educator and researcher

When I trained to be mathematics teacher, I soon became concerned with New Labour’s education policy. It oversimplified the learning process and undermined teachers’ professionalism. I became involved in the NASUWT and regularly attended the annual conference. The current education policy under the Conservative government is concerned with further privatisation and an even greater oversimplification of teaching and learning. I could not imagine that was even possible. As a teacher I have a duty to campaign for education on behalf of other teachers and on behalf of students and communities.

Even when I was less politically active, I was keen to encourage students to be aware of the politics of mathematics. In the classroom, I showed students how mathematics and statistics are used to influence opinion and beliefs. We looked at and discussed news items that used statistics. I explained how mathematics has and continues to be used to exploit those without mathematical knowledge. I was keen to develop mathematical literacy as citizenship.

Now as a teacher educator, I believe that trainee teachers, in order to become professionals and future leaders in education, should be in a position to critique education policy. They should understand how mathematics pedagogy might be effective with different groups of learners, especially those from low socioeconomic backgrounds and those who do not find the learning of mathematics straightforward. I also want trainees to be aware of their own working conditions and pay, and that professionals need, at times, to act with solidarity to campaign for improvements. Improvements that allow them to be better professionals.

As an educator I encourage students to be critical and examine the bigger questions about the politics of mathematics and the politics of education. I draw the line at trying to impose a particular viewpoint or recruit students to political organisations.

As a researcher and academic, my work is applied social science. It is concerned with how to understand and improve educational practice and structures: to improve learning and consequently to improve society. My research is within a political context. I am not researching as a disinterested observer or as non-participant, I am part of that process. My beliefs drive my actions as much as logic and reason.

If I am politically active how can my research be valid?

The philosophy underpinning my approach to research is pragmatism. The philosophy proposed by Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914) and William James (1842-1910), and developed further by John Dewey (1859-1952) in and around education. Pragmatism presents truth not as determined through abstract reasoning,  i.e. through rationalism. Neither can it be determined through experience, i.e. through empiricism. For James, truth could only really be determined by what actually works in practice. Pragmatism is a practical kind of truth.

In my research this means carefully observing classrooms, theorising practice, developing approaches and assessing their impact using qualitative and quantitative approaches. My starting point is exploring existing practice, identifying and explaining patterns of behaviour using social science theory. The next stage involves formulating questions about how learning is taking place. This is followed by propositions about how practice might be changed or developed. Finally the change is examined and its usefulness is considered. The test of validity is the extent to which developments are implemented and that implementation is sustained. The approach is further explained and exemplified here.

The way in which I integrate my political activism with my teaching and research is by giving students the opportunity to be politically aware of the subject being taught but not imposing a particular view. In my research, validity is sought through pragmatism, it allows decisions to be guided by what works rather than by a political position.

I believe that being political is not really a choice. You can try and ignore political inclinations or you can try and integrate them into your practice in a critical and ethical way.